Daring to disagree
Disagreement in the workplace can prove disruptive, arguably more so now than ever. Yet discussion, debate and disagreement are critical tools, as companies strive to avoid complacency and drive development. How can businesses strike the right balance?
Katherine Johnson was never afraid of a disagreement. A Nasa mathematician, she died aged 101 in February, but her working life exemplified the tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes – where a child has the courage to disagree with a crowd that is under the spell of groupthink.
In 1953, women at her laboratory didn’t question or disagree with men. Not only was Johnson female, but she was black and therefore segregated into the “colored computing” area. Male engineers were grand designers, women were “computers in skirts”. Johnson was, however, indisputably good at maths. In her first week at work, she pointed out that there was an error in a vital equation made by one of the engineers in the flight research unit.
Was it possible that the engineer may have made a mistake? She didn’t challenge him with an overt: “You are wrong.” She merely posed the question. The engineer refused to admit he had made a mistake, but he blushed and ceded the point.
How organisations discuss and disagree is a mark of their maturity. Groupthink is a pernicious bubble that requires some air removal every now and again to check on reality. The dangers of wilful blindness are legion in organisations that lack the ability to test and question. At the same time, however, rambling and inconsequential meetings at which everyone is allowed to express an opinion can be sand in the gears of any business. The opinion of some experts is more valuable than that of others. That is, after all, the difference between an expert and a lay person.
Today, it can sometimes feel like we are surrounded by both rambling, inconsequential commentary and raucous shouting matches on social media. Yet disagreement does not have to be dull or disagreeable. Humans in groups can have greater intelligence than the sum of their individual parts. As such, disagreement can be productive, and it has historic legitimacy too. The process of thesis and antithesis leading to synthesis is German philosopher GWF Hegel’s dialectical method, but it is a method with which Aristotle would have been familiar thousands of years previously. Most rational people want to get to the truth eventually.
Groupthink is a pernicious bubble that requires some air removal every now and again to check on reality
Jan Hall is one of the most successful headhunters of her generation, and has placed senior executives at leading companies, including Diageo, Marks & Spencer and easyJet. She says: “The truth is, very few people have ever got anywhere in business by not listening or taking advice. Equally, why would anyone worth their salt remain in an organisation if they feel they never have a voice but are just ignored or shouted down? “That is not to say there is no value in experience – knowing what lies under stones that have been turned before – but how you deal with people voicing their ideas matters enormously. We all steal each other’s ideas.”
Hall has dealt with more than her fair share of alpha executives. “When it comes to disagreement, bullies are not easy to cope with. And it isn’t just alpha males who bully. So how do you deal with them? Do you let them carry on? Many will have been doing it for years. But you don’t respond to a child’s contribution by calling them an idiot. Respect is so important,” she says.
Conflict for its own sake isn’t healthy or productive, but to shield people from the canon of diverse thought is a very bad idea
Her tip for the shrinking violet who struggles to be heard is simple: “Think carefully about the time when I got people to listen to my ideas. How did I do it? What made them land?” This takes practice, but it is a learnable skill. And when it works, both the speaker and the spoken to can benefit.
Of course, there is a difference between being heard and being assertive, particularly if your assertions differ from those of colleagues. How to disagree well, even productively, can be a hard skill for anyone to master. But it becomes increasingly important as people climb the business ladder.
As leadership coach Penny de Valk explains: “What people mustn’t lose as they become more senior is the ability to listen. Those at the top often have a righteous and all-knowing mind. Nothing is new to them: their experience sometimes means they feel they know it all. They get addicted to being right and disagreeing with them can be pretty difficult. And even when they do have to hear, they listen with threatened ears.”
This can have serious consequences, de Valk believes. If executives believe they are always right, mistakes are more likely to arise, because no one dares to naysay them. Yet most employees are fearful of disagreeing with their boss in case they are misunderstood. And women tend to be particularly diffident, according to Hall.
“The number of times I’ve placed a female non-executive onto a board and the chairman said to me later, ‘She’s so bright, but why did she wait to put her point of view to me on the way to the lift after the meeting rather than in the room!’” she says.
De Valk also notes differences between the sexes. “Very few people actually enjoy a fight, but women are far more likely to be upset by disagreement and take it personally,” she suggests.
“But disagreements have to be handled sensitively, whatever gender you are. Fights are bad places to take important decisions. The wrong part of your brain, the pre-frontal cortex, which is associated with fight and flight, gets involved and creative options are shut down. I’m not saying that difficult conversations should be avoided. But they should be collaborative, not adversarial.”
In daring to disagree, she found her place in history. Indeed, in the late 1960s, she was one of the individuals who was trusted to help to calculate the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 moonflight
There are cultural nuances in this space, as well.
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is a professor of business psychology at University College London and author of the best-selling Harvard Business Review Press book Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How To Fix It). A world expert in personality profiling and people analytics, he says: “In Western cultures, it’s pretty common for a kid fresh from an MBA course to feel that they have to openly challenge their superiors in the hierarchy. This, they feel, gets them noticed and helps them advance – disagreement is rewarded. In China or Japan, such behaviour would be unthinkable.”
Chamorro-Premuzic is Argentinian by birth and particularly alive to the profound differences between nationalities when it comes to disagreeing. As he explains: “It took me nine years of being in the UK and attending meetings until I worked out that when a Brit tells you they think your idea is ‘interesting’, they actually mean it’s the most useless idea in the world.”
For Chamorro-Premuzic, this sort of behaviour is not well-bred courtesy but “passive aggression”. However, it may reflect a deeper truth: that Anglo-Saxon businesses have traditionally been more hierarchical in structure, while those in mainland Europe tend to be more collaborative and consensual. He suggests: “I bet the way Angela Merkel runs a meeting is profoundly different from the way Donald Trump does it.”
In Western cultures, it’s pretty common for a kid fresh from an MBA course to feel that they have to openly challenge their superiors in the hierarchy. In China or Japan, such behaviour would be unthinkable
Fundamental level of trust
Many believe that effective disagreement – that is neither adversarial nor self-effacing – comes down to a blend of confidence and trust.
At home, for example, people generally feel they can be completely honest. There is a fundamental level of trust and it is widely understood that things will almost certainly return to normal even after a blazing row. At work, however, individuals can feel their card will be marked for ever if they put a foot wrong and tread on the wrong toes.
There are generational differences, too. While top MBA graduates may think they are equal or even superior to those around them, some of those in generations Y and Z can be visibly squeamish around conflict. This can create issues in the workplace and on campus.
Very few people have ever got anywhere in business by not listening or taking advice. Equally, why would anyone worth their salt remain in an organisation if they feel they never have a voice?”
“There is a fine line between insistence on civility and intolerance of dissent,” says de Valk.
“I find the use of the word ‘safe’ in universities very odd – safe spaces. What they mean is spaces where the possibility of proper dialogue isn’t permitted. Conflict for its own sake isn’t healthy or productive, but to shield people from the canon of diverse thought is a very bad idea. How on earth can conversational intelligence occur among the young? How can they examine and test received wisdom?”
This is a topic that would be familiar to Katherine Johnson, the plain speaker. In daring to disagree, she found her place in history. Indeed, in the late 1960s, she was one of the individuals who was trusted to help to calculate the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 moonflight. At the age of 97, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama, and in 2016, a feature film, Hidden Figures, was made about her life. She knew it was wrong not to ask a question and to disagree. Her maths demanded it. If the emperor has no clothes, he needs telling – and fast n